The iOS Region Setting and Apple Pay are linked together in interesting ways that has changed with iOS versions. Up through iOS 10, devices needed to have the Region match the country they wanted to add and use cards in: iPhone had to be set to Japan to add and use Japanese credit cards in Apple Pay, and so on.
This changed in iOS 11 with global FeliCa iPhone and NFC switching. The Region setting only needed to be changed to add a card for any particular country and had nothing to do with using it. This is because Apple Pay Wallet only displays the card options that match the Region setting and acts like a filter. The Wallet animation cycle shows what’s available:
After adding a card, the Region setting can be anything as Apple Pay ignores it and takes care of the rest. Many inbound users don’t realize this and have avoided adding Suica to Apple Pay under the misconception that the iPhone/Apple Watch Region has to be set to Japan to use it.
Wallet behavior is the same in iOS 12, even with the iOS 12.2 UI tweaks, but the Region setting can be completely ignored when adding cards to Apple Pay with an app like SuicaEng. SuicaEng simply adds Suica no matter what the iPhone Region setting is, a nice time saver because changing the iPhone Region is a mini restart.
Another small change from iOS 11 is that if you have a Suica card deleted from Wallet that is parked on iCloud, Wallet will show you the Add Suica option no matter what the iPhone Region setting is. It’s a nice touch and reminder in case you ever forgot you had one.
I hope Apple continues to streamline Apple Pay Wallet so that users don’t have to think about or deal with Region settings to add cards, where all cards options for the region you are currently in present themselves, and ‘just work’ when the user selects them.
The October 2016 launch of Apple Pay Suica in Japan was an important one with several ‘firsts’: FeliCa was the first non-EMV contactless payment NFC technology on the Apple Pay platform, the first appearance of Express Transit cards that worked without Touch ID/Face ID and supported the full feature set (commuter passes, etc.) of regular plastic smartcards. The success of Suica on Apple Pay remains the fullest expression and gold standard of what a transit smartcard on mobile can be, with transit, e-money, lightning fast performance and Apple Map integration rolled into one.
Express Transit arrived in Beijing and Shanghai in 2017 with the iOS 11.3 addition of PBOC payment technology to Apple Pay, but the cards remain in perpetual beta (more China transit cards were on tap for iOS 11.4 but pulled), are not yet interoperable in other transit areas, require a China UnionPay debit card for recharge instead of any Apple Pay card, and cannot be used for e-money purchases.
iOS 12 added MIFARE support which is the technology used for contactless Student ID cards that launched last September. Student ID cards are basically Express Transit cards called ‘Express Mode’, without transit that open door locks and come with e-money services. The arrival of MIFARE in iOS 12 was an indication that other card services would come to Apple Pay.
The addition of Portland HOP (Coming Soon says Apple, TriMet says summer) and Chicago Ventra (coming later this year) marks the first time iPhone users in America have the opportunity to use Apple Pay Express Transit en masse. Even snotty TfL users don’t have that and it looks like they never will. iPhone users can already use EMV contactless Apple Pay credit/debit cards for transit in Portland and Chicago so why did Tim Cook go out of his way to mention them at the Apple Special Event on March 25? It’s the Express Transit card thing, best captured by Suica on Apple Watch in this tweet:
Express Transit vs EMV Contactless
Using Apple Pay Suica in Japan for instant transit and store purchases nationwide without using Face ID/Touch ID spoils a person for using anything else in Wallet. I use Apple Pay credit cards to add money to Suica and little else. In Japan there are entire ad campaigns built around Express Transit:
I spent last summer in Salt Lake City learning just how slow and bumpy the average Apple Pay EMV contactless credit card American experience is. Checkout terminal infrastructure is creaky with poorly marked tiny NFC hit areas with little or no user feedback. Invariably I heard, “try it again” or the ultimate punchline, “You’re holding it wrong.” No wonder in-app payments are bigger than Apple Pay USA. Things are rough on the system backend too: UTA unceremoniously dropped Apple Pay EMV contactless support while I was there.
Express Transit fully reproduces the user experience of plastic transit cards adding much more functionality and convenience, while doing away with small but important Apple Pay EMV stress points such as using Face ID/Touch ID and dealing with multiple Wallet cards. Chicago Ventra support offers some insight on the current state of EMV transit:
Get your device ready, first, for fastest entry
“Card clash”: touch only your desired payment method
Multiple credit cards: always use the same card on the same device on Ventra readers
Another downside of EMV contactless is that it’s a very dumb smartcard. EMV was created by the credit card consortium for leisurely check out at the local supermarket, not for daily commuters zipping through transit gates at rush hour. EMV transactions are always slower than a transit card with none of the functionality or benefits. The differences between transit smartcards and EMV are nicely captured on the HOP page.
Furthermore bank cards are owned by the bank, not the transit company or the customer. That means conditions for both transit company and customer to use it. Transit cards however are owned by the transit company, the prepaid balance you put in them is yours.
I’ve always questioned the purported wisdom and convenience of letting banks directly on transit fare gates. It’s a devil’s bargain as Chicago Ventra found out with their own Mastercard branded debit card experience. Predatory banks and fees will never go away. My position is that it’s a better long term business opportunity for transit companies to limit bank cards to the backend for adding money to transit cards on digital wallets, where they really shine, and focus instead on building better services tied to transit cards that benefit customers and businesses of the entire transit region, aka a transit platform business model.
Building a Future: interoperable transit cards and e-money
There is some interesting discussion regarding Express Transit vs EMV on the MacRumors site. Most people see the convenience of Express Transit without Face ID/Touch ID, some don’t. Heavy travelers in particular prefer one EMV card thing to ride transit anywhere rather than juggling different transit cards. It’s a trivial issue on digital wallets but they have a point. It is exactly a key issue explained by Egon Terplan in his article Falling in Love With the Trains of Japan: nationwide interoperable transit cards.
It took Japanese transit companies a decade to make their transit cards interoperable with each other through incremental upgrades on backend systems and IC smartcard issuance. This is much easier to achieve with digital wallets attached to cloud backends, and since most transit fare card systems in America are designed and/or operated by the same company, Cubic Transportation Systems, interoperable transit cards shouldn’t be that hard to do. It doesn’t take much imagination to see the usefulness of a HOP card that works on Chicago Ventra, NYC MTA, LA TAP, and vice versa.
This usefulness can be vastly expanded with the addition of an e-money service that frees the prepaid card balance for other uses outside of transit, a transit card version of John Hopkins J-Card or DukeCard e-money that works nationwide is a powerful thing. It is hard to explain just how powerful and transformative simple things like Apple Pay Suica Express Cards can be unless you experience them first hand. The simple ‘it just works’ success of Suica is built on layers of infrastructure where each new layer adds functions that strengthen the whole.
Now that transit cards are finally arriving on digital wallets in a big way this year, with Apple Pay delivering some of those advantages to iPhone users, here’s hoping that America can experience it and be inspired to build the same thing over time.
Looking ahead we can expect more details of the New York MTA EMV transit fare service rollout, LA Metro has said they expect Apple Pay support for the TAP fare system (EMV only?) later this year as well. Hong Kong iPhone users are fervently hoping for Smart Octopus on Apple Pay now that the Smart Octopus on Samsung Pay exclusive is apparently over. iOS 13 might be a Apple Pay Transit coming out party for many. That would be great fun.
Last but not least here are some Express Transit card tips and other things I have learned from 2 years of daily Suica use.
HOP and Ventra use the same MIFARE technology as Student ID cards, Express Transit device specs are the same: iPhone 6S and later, Apple Watch Series 1 and later.
Express Cards only work while Face ID/Touch ID is active. Express Cards stop working when Face ID/Touch ID is disabled. Be careful if you wear face masks on your commute, it’s easy to disable Face ID without realizing it with a rude surprise at the transit gate. Face mask users can mitigate this by turning off Face ID for unlocking iPhone but leave it on for Apple Pay.
Apple Watch with Express Cards is a great combination but in winter when wearing layers of clothes, iPhone is faster at the gate.
iOS 12.2 rearranges the familiar Wallet UI to make way for Apple Card with prepaid cards like Suica along for the ride. The changes on the Suica prepaid side include new ‘Add Money’ and commuter pass ‘Renew’ button designs, transaction icons and other layout tweaks that look more like the Samsung One UI than iOS. It’s a halfhearted attempt to make prepaid functions more accessible than the previous iOS 10.1~12.1 Wallet design, but not very a successful one because of UI changes dictated by the forthcoming Apple Card. The total is less than the sum of the sloppily rushed parts. Let’s take a look.
Wallet UI Changes The main Wallet view for regular Suica cards now has the Add Money button for easy access next to the balance with the latest transaction listed with a huge icon in a separate area below. This ‘button up front’ tweak is easily the most successful and welcome design change for prepaid cards in iOS 12.2 Wallet:
The new Wallet design for Commuter Suica cards however fails to improve things from the previous design. The commuter pass information still resides on the same line with balance so you still have to tap to another screen to access Add Money and commuter pass renew buttons. There’s plenty of room without that huge useless transaction icon, why not just put it all on the main screen? Apple could have done a better design job here but again Apple Card was dictating the UI changes:
Tapping the new black “…” in the upper right corner brings up the Suica info/transactions view. The previous design had it in the lower right corner which I prefer as I find going down to tap feels more natural that reaching up to tap. Transaction history includes the new huge icons that indicate transaction type: transit-purchase-credit. These appear utter useless to me since the information is already listed in the text. Big icons in a list view are questionable at best, here they are just bad design because transit/e-money prepaid cards like Suica have a vastly different daily use profile than credit cards:
The Suica info window now has ‘Add Money’, ‘Renew’ placed near the top along with shortcut icons to Mobile Suica support. Look carefully and you can see the UI designers botched icon placement because some fool insisted the English word “Web” remain along with the Japanese even though English is completely unnecessary in Japanese localization. More Sloppy:
The ‘black instead of blue’ theme for the new Wallet card UI parts is a mystery and doesn’t mesh well with older Wallet UI parts such as adding cards which retain the older look. Why? Taken all altogether the Wallet UI changes feel lumpy and unpolished, Apple clearly didn’t sweat the details in the rush to get iOS 12.2 Wallet ready for Apple Card.
One last thing on iOS 12.2 Wallet changes, Japanese credit cards no longer list the latest transaction though I can only confirm this for JR East JCB View Card, Docomo Mastercard dCard and Tsutaya JCB T-Card. I suspect the change is part of the new transaction reporting feature unveiled with Apple Card. Perhaps Apple hopes to encourage card issuers to post transaction information dynamically and directly to Wallet instead of shunting it to separate apps. There are probably lots of Apple Pay Wallet changes under the hood that will be revealed at WWDC alluded to by Tim Cook today in the keynote that more Apple Transit like Ventra (iOS 12) and Smart Octopus (iOS 13) would be ‘coming later this year’.
Suica Express Card error flicker: occasional error flicker at transit gates with iPhone 7, iPhone 8, iPhone X (Rev. B) and Apple Watch 2~4. This is a completely different issue from the iPhone X NFC hardware defect. There is no workaround and no feedback on iOS 12.2 performance yet.
Dead Suica Notifications/No Suica Balance Update: Suica Notifications stop working and Suica Balance fails to update at transit gates, store readers and Suica recharges. This affects iPhone 7, iPhone 8, iPhone X (Rev. B) and Apple Watch 2~4 but is easy to fix by putting Suica in Service Mode for a few seconds. No iOS 12.2 feedback yet.
Slow or unresponsive Suica Recharge: a long term issue where Apple Pay Suica recharge fails half of the time especially when recharging from a Suica notification shortcut. The good news is this issue in my iOS 12.2 beta testing appears to be fixed.
Dead Suica UI/Express Card power reserve ‘lite’: This only affects iPhone XS and iPhone XR. A kind of ‘Express Card power reserve lite’ bug kicks in occasionally. Suica works flawlessly on readers but the entire Apple Pay Suica UI dies: no notifications, no balance update, no Apple Pay sound, no feedback whatsoever. Service Mode does not revive the Suica UI but restart iPhone and all is good again. Fortunately this issue seems rare. Unfortunately I have experienced on 2 separate iPhone XS devices and the bug was worse in the final iOS 12.2 beta that shipped as the official release: previous iOS 12 versions exhibited this problem every other day, iOS 12.2 (16E227) has it after a few hours.
Update Right on cue Japanese iPhone users are complaining about the UI changes in iOS 12.2 Wallet:
iOS 12.2 beta 6 has dropped with no sign of Smart Octopus support in Apple Pay from beta code spelunkers like Guilherme Rambo. A source close to the Cupertino mothership also indicated the situation in Hong Kong is “complex.” Live by the rumor and pay the price, it looks like the story sources and my judgement were wrong: Smart Octopus won’t be on Apple Pay when the OS 12.2 update is released at the March 25 Apple Special Event. Nevertheless, I stand by what I wrote back in December:
Digital Wallets like Apple Pay and Samsung Pay are the most tightly integrated NFC software and hardware digital wallet platforms out there with integrated FeliCa, but Apple is the only one to implement the necessary Secure Element on their own A Series/S Series hardware with FeliCa Networks keys, and sell the package globally.
Smart Octopus on Google Pay might look nice on paper but it can’t achieve anything of scale yet because of the highly fragmented nature of Android: to date hardware manufacturers have yet to produce an answer to Apple’s global FeliCa iPhone and Apple Watch, even though everybody’s smartphone has a NFC A-B-F chip. Not even Google has pulled it off.
Smart Octopus on Apple Pay isn’t just adding a card to a digital wallet platform, it is also a statement of who ultimately controls, operates and benefits from the public transit gates. It’s more about market politics than technology, in other words another battle in the contactless payment turf wars. The outcome will be fascinating to watch but determines whether Octopus will remain a great transit payment platform for Hong Kong with a future, or not.
I also have a new prediction that we’ll see Apple Pay Smart Octopus with the next major iOS release iOS 13, in 6 months. Take it for what it’s worth, but I feel confident that we can celebrate some good news at that time.
A word to the wise: do not rely on the iOS Stocks app for Japanese stocks. The iOS 11 Stocks version of the app was actually handy until Verizon took control of the old Yahoo Inc. backend service. 3 things happened: Japanese language support for stock tickers broke, stock prices updates were delayed 20 minutes or longer, and individual stock news feeds dried up.
iOS 12 Stocks fixed Japanese language support for stock tickers but they are not dynamic; if a company changes its name your registered stock ticker will never update until you delete and re-register it. Individual stock news feeds have returned but are mostly useless selection of bad AI.
The biggest problem remains: stock prices are still delayed anywhere from 20~30 minutes to 24 hours. If you follow Japanese stocks do yourself a favor and use Yahoo Japan Finance (web/app), or any of the stock apps on the App Store (JP).